Why Is It Called Quiet Creature on the Corner?

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This post comes to us from CJ Evans, Two Lines Press’s Editorial Director.

When translator Adam Morris sent me a short excerpt from João Gilberto Noll’s Quiet Creature on the Corner (O quieto animal da esquina), and later when I read the full translation, I couldn’t help think about Jorge Luis Borges’s slim collection, A Universal History of Iniquity. In particular, the obvious echo in the title led me to re-read the story “Man on Pink Corner” (“Hombre de la esquina rosada”), which recounts a scene in which a knife fighter is killed, without real motive, by the narrator, who only offers this:

I stood there looking at the things I’d been seeing all my life—a sky that went on forever, the creek flowing angry-like down below there, a sleeping horse, the dirt street, the kilns—and I was struck by the thought that I was just another weed growing along those banks, coming up between the soapworts and the bone piles of the tanneries. What was supposed to grow out of trash heaps if it wasn’t us?

The narrator of Noll’s book, an unemployed poet who, until recently, lived in a squat with his mother, has a lack of hope in common with the knife fighters of Borges’s story. These are all men born into a time and place—depression-era Buenos Aires for Borges, Porto Alegre of the 1980s Brazilian recession for Noll—that provides no semblance of a future for them, and thus there are no such things as consequences.

Noll takes this pathos to the extreme—his character’s passive reactions only slightly mirror what we’d think of as the life of a person. He gives in to lust, to anger, to fear, and to loneliness the way an animal would, in turn clinging to people who may or may not wish him well, but then lashing out at them violently without provocation or reason. While Borges’s story has a whiff of an earlier era’s morality, Noll’s character is stripped almost entirely of self-reflection, even to go so far as to have no sense of time passing as he lives in an almost constant present, confused by finding his beard suddenly grown long, or the faces of the people around him shockingly older. Even the choice between robbing his own mother or asking her for tea occupy the same psychological weight:

I doubted I’d be able to sleep with a downpour starting to rail against the window, the water blocking my view outside. I thought how my life was really taking its time figuring things out, and my mother snored as if to say don’t even start—and there I was, staring at streams of raindrops that wouldn’t let me see outside, unable to sleep, without even a way to take a walk in the street due to the rain, so I went to the living room, the light was still on, and I could’ve stolen my mother’s wedding ring right off her finger, and even taken my time rolling out since she wouldn’t wake up, but that wedding ring probably wasn’t worth a nickel, and I was a coward anyway: I called out to her, asked her to make me a tea because I was feeling woozy, ready to vomit.

In his introduction to the second edition of A Universal History of Iniquity, Borges wrote:

The learned doctors of the Great Vehicle teach us that the essential characteristic of the universe is its emptiness. They are certainly correct with respect to the tiny part of the universe that is this book. Gallows and pirates fill its pages, and that word iniquity strikes awe in its title, but under all the storm and lightning there is nothing.

Noll’s book, like Borges’s story, is a study in what happens when people are stripped of their futures, when there’s no more reason to strive or to fear repercussions. The result is violent and frightening, surely, but also laced through by the sadness of lives wasted before they’ve even begun, that have no hope of being more than storm and lightning swirling above nothing.

*All quotes from Jorge Luis Borges’s A Universal History of Iniquity translated by Andrew Hurley.

Quiet Creature on the Corner comes out May 10th from Two Lines Press!

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